Engineering allows me to explore what I love, and also apply it to the real world. I gravitated toward engineering applications in biology, because there’s so much in this field we don’t know, and the idea of making discoveries and advances that impact human health is so compelling to me.
Today I work on engineering new hydrogels that mimic the environment of our tissues, allowing us to study how cells function in a more realistic environment. This is a new approach to understanding cell biology. A lot of the tissue study up to now has been done using hard glass and plastic surfaces, or “Petri dishes,” but tissue actually is soft and viscoelastic, which means it has some properties of viscous liquid and some properties of elastic solids. Hydrogels – think of jello or contact lenses – more closely mimic that. We’re finding that the viscoelasticity of the surrounding environment plays a critical role in how cells operate.
Using these hydrogels lets us more accurately study how cancer cells metastasize by pushing and pulling and squeezing their way through soft tissues. The answers we find could contribute to our understanding of cancer, and help us develop and test new therapeutics. Most of the cancer drugs developed today fail in clinical trials, and one big reason is that they’ve been studied in Petri dishes that can’t accurately model the environment of the human body.
We’re also finding that hydrogel viscoelasticity plays a major role in stem cell differentiation and function. If you take a stem cell from bone marrow and put it in a stiff hydrogel, for example, it turns into a bone cell, but if you put it in a softer hydrogel, it becomes a fat cell. Increasing our understanding of this process has tremendous potential for advancing regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.
It’s funny; we can build incredibly complex machines like spaceships, airplanes and submarines, but even though we all have trillions of cells in our bodies, we really don’t understand much about how these cells are engineered and wouldn’t be able to build one ourselves. I want to study fundamental questions about how cells move and function, because answering them has the potential to transform the treatment of disease and how we approach regenerative medicine.